Like any good hallucinatory experience, it takes Zerzura a bit of time to kick in. But when it does, what begins as a relatively straightforward hero's quest suddenly transforms into a striking, surreal and utterly gorgeous symphony of bizarre, cerebral imagery.
This isn't the first time Portland-based director and ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley has looked to the city of Agadez, Niger, for convention-bucking inspiration. His breakout film, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, was essentially a retelling of Purple Rain set in the desert, a place lacking both the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka and an actual word for purple (the title translated to "Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It"). With Zerzura, he and co-director Rhissa Koutata dive further into the deep end to craft a fable rooted in ancient myth, touching on modern immigration issues while maintaining a near-Homeric tone.
The legend at the root of the film is the titular lost city lorded by djinn, who guard its excesses of gold. It's claimed the brother of the film's nameless protagonist. After receiving a magical dagger, our hero (played by Ahmoudou Madassane, who also scored the film) begins his long walk across the desert in an linear, episodic quest to rescue his kin, encountering soothsayers, temptation and horrors along the way.
With non-actors in every role, the film initially seems like a cinéma vérité tale that involves little more than a man walking. Then, just as interest wanes, the hero walks backward into the subterranean lair of a gold-obsessed hermit. Suddenly and without warning, the film explodes into something completely different—a supernatural tale filled with explosive color, immaculately framed tableaus and enough freaky imagery to fill a funhouse.
But lest this all sound highly modernized, the directors keep Zerzura completely grounded in a tale that spans nine centuries, a fable that has stood the test of time as a cautionary tale about the blind pursuit of greed. The hallucinatory elements aren't just a gimmick. They serve to plunge you headlong into the tale, and at times, it's breathtaking.
SEE IT: Zerzura screens at Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm Wednesday, July 19. $9.